Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Bumpy Road Through Paradise

It was with great pleasure when I heard the news that Sourcebooks had not only decided to reprint a couple titles from Rosanne Bittner's backlist, but that they had also picked up the rights to two new historical westerns. Paradise Valley is Bittner's first book in roughly a decade, and features many of her trademarks.  While small-town westerns have their place in the sub genre, Bittner built her name writing gritty frontier-style stories that often had saga-like overtones.  These happen to be among my very favorite types of historical westerns (the grittier the better I always say!), and while Paradise Valley didn't blow me away, it was still an enjoyable read.

The story begins with Maggie Tucker trying to dig a grave to bury her dead husband.  A group of men came across their covered wagon, shot her husband and then proceeded to gang-rape her.  It's in this state that Sage Lightfoot finds her.  Maggie, already having had a full rich day, grabs the only gun the outlaws left behind (her Daddy's old Smith Carbine shotgun) and, despite being near the point of collapse, points it square at Sage.

Sage is chasing after the same men who attacked Maggie and killed her husband.  He feels, oh, just a wee bit responsible.  He has a big ol' cattle ranch and needed all the hands he could get during round-up season.  He didn't look too closely, didn't ask enough questions - and now his foreman is dead and his wife brutalized.  When he comes across Maggie, and gets descriptions from her, it's a bitter pill for him that he was too late to save her from a horrible ordeal and her husband from death.  He convinces her to come back with him to his ranch, but she's having none of it.  She's mad as hell and is determined to go with Sage to hunt down these men.  She wants to personally put bullets in all of them.

In what is a nice role-reversal, we have a revenge story where it's the heroine out for blood.  Certainly with the above plot description, readers maybe squeamish about giving this story a go - but Bittner wisely treads lightly and keeps the details gore-free.  We know Maggie was raped, but we aren't privy to the gruesome and horrifying play-by-play.  The author wisely leaves it up to our imaginations, which frankly is awful enough.

Certainly it's presumptuous of anybody to tell a woman how she should act or feel after a crime like this, but I bought into the idea that Maggie would be well and truly pissed off.  She's traumatized when Sage finds her, but she doesn't take leave of her senses.  She gets the measure of him fairly quickly, but doesn't necessarily trust him entirely.  So she's smart, but still guarded.  And the idea that she's pissed off enough to exact her own justice in this matter makes for a compelling read.

It's a story filled with action and adventure that follows the Old School Adage: The More Bad Stuff That Happens To The Characters, The Better.  I can easily roll with this in westerns though, given the lack of resources, civilization, and general mayhem that can befall people when they're out in the wilderness together.

What didn't work quite as well for me was the actual romance.  Sage and Maggie get to their "I love yous" pretty quick - and outside of spending a lot of time traveling together - I'm not sure how or why they actually fell in love.  Also, for someone who has just survived a gang-rape, Maggie pretty readily decides to bump-uglies with Sage.  Again, there is no uniform victim response in any crime, but there just didn't seem to be any hesitancy on Maggie's part.  I mean, not even a teeny-tiny flinch.   You would expect something, but here there is almost nothing - which didn't really work for me.

Where this leaves me is with the reaction of having spent time with an enjoyable, albeit with some flaws, read.  It's not great, and I really wanted it to be great.  But it's also not terrible.  I enjoyed it while I read it, and it reminded me of what Bittner has always done very well - and that's give readers frontier-set romances that "feel big."  When she gets her hooks into a good idea, she has a way of sweeping a reader along, peppering us with plenty of action and adventure, and making us all wish that Hollywood would figure out a way to make movies like this and not royally screw them up.

Final Grade = B-

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